Online Program Management Partnerships May Have Contributed to Rising Student Debt Loads As Need for Online Education Grows During Pandemic

WASHINGTON, [1.18.22] – United States Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote to the eight largest Online Program Management (OPM) companies — 2U, Academic Partnerships, Pearson, Wiley, Bisk, Kaplan, Grand Canyon, and Zovio — that administer online degree programs for many colleges and universities, raising concerns about their business practices and tuition-sharing arrangements that incentivize aggressive recruitment tactics and may be contributing to rising student debt loads. 

“We continue to have concerns about the impact of OPM partnerships on rising student debt loads. The responses to our previous letters confirmed that OPMs often have tuition-sharing arrangements with universities, which commit an ongoing percentage of tuition revenue to the OPM to finance the start-up and ongoing costs of operating online degree programs. OPMs often receive 50% or more of students’ tuition. These agreements may create a disincentive to lower costs,” wrote Senator Smith and her colleagues.

The Senators first questioned OPM companies business practices in January 2020. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased the need and demand for online education. OPM partnerships are growing quickly and becoming integral to university finances and operations. In January of 2020, OPM companies had nearly 200 partnerships with universities and hundreds of thousands of students. By the end of 2021, experts estimate that colleges and universities had 367 OPM partnerships, and some institutions now rely on OPMs for 40-50% of their total enrollment.

The tuition-sharing model also creates incentives for aggressive recruitment tactics. One OPM contract required it to contact prospective students at least 13 times a day, for ten days in a row. This raises questions about the extent to which federal resources are being spent on marketing, recruitment, and profit; and whether OPM arrangements, which are based on guidance issued by the Department of Education in 2011, violate the incentive compensation ban in the Higher Education Act. 

The Senators asked for a response to their set of detailed questions about the scale and logistics of OPM operations and tuition-sharing agreements, the demographics of students they serve, the types of programs they manage, tuition, the breakdown of their expenditures, and their use of federal aid dollars by no later than January 28, 2022.

Text of Letters (PDF)  |  Responses to 2020 Letters (PDF)

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